Rachel Sutton-Spence
University of Bristol

Phonological "deviance" in British Sign Language Poetry

American Sign Language poetry has been described in some detail over the years (eg Klima and Bellugi, 1979 and Ormsby, 1995) and it has been shown to contain features that may be considered akin to rhyme, alliteration and assonance in spoken language. Regular repetitions of handshape, movement path and choice of location in signs are used in conjunction with rhythm, and creativity of signs to produce a poem where the language used enhances - and may even take precedence over - the message of the poem. British Sign Language poetry, however, has not received the same detailed analysis.

Leech (1991), considering English poetry, treats poems as linguistically deviant forms of language, in which the form and content is "foregrounded" against a background of non-deviant language. The deviant language used may be noticeably irregular or noticeably regular. In this paper I will describe ways in which the form of the language is deviant. I will consider some of the phonological features of BSL poetry that are deviant. I have applied these ideas to the BSL poem "Trio" by the late Dorothy Miles. Analysis of this poem shows the same features in BSL poetry as Leech found in English poetry. The deviant use of BSL phonology may be "irregular" when applied to the "bending" of BSL phonological rules in the construction of poetic neologisms. Handshapes, uses of space and movement and non-manual features including eye gaze and spoken components are all "irregularly deviant" phonologically. "Regular deviance" may be seen in unusually high frequency uses of certain phonological features. Repeated handshapes, movements or specific locations, and repeated use of non-manual features create a foregrounded language that may be identified as poetry.

The BSL poetry of Dot Miles is enjoying a revival after a brief period of lessened interest in the years immediately following her death in 1993. An anthology of her work has recently been published by the British Deaf History Society. This is a collection of both the poems she wrote in English and English translations of the poems she composed in BSL. However, there is now renewed interest in her BSL poems and a collection of recordings of her performances is underway.

Dot's poems form a part of the heritage of Britain´s Deaf community. She composed her poetry from the perspective of a deaf person, and her much of her work addresses topics central to so much of the struggle of the deaf community. Her poems such as "To a deaf child" and "The BDA is you and me" address familiar themes of sign language and the importance of the deaf community. The importance of her contribution to today´s Deaf community is exemplified by the recent performance of two of her poems at a mass rally for recognition of BSL held in Trafalgar Square by the Federation of Deaf People.

Dot´s poems are more than simple expressions of the hopes and fears of Deaf people, however. They are also richly crafted pieces of linguistic art. Her compositions use BSL especially selected for aesthetic affect. The effect of the chosen linguistic forms is to create greatly enhanced significance of her poems. Dot´s poems may be analysed at many levels. The relationship between the English versions and the BSL versions of her poems would repay extended study. Her use of symbolism also merits detailed attention. However, this study focuses on her use of phonological deviance and the impact that such deviance has.

Geoffrey Leech has provided a robust and useful framework to allow the linguistic analysis of poetry. This essentially formalist approach does not take into account other factors such as the status of the poet, the poet´s relationship with the audience or the context in which the poem was composed and performed. Instead, it focuses upon the language itself. Within Leech´s framework, poetic language may be seen as fundamentally deviant from everyday language. This deviance becomes obtrusive as it allows certain linguistic forms to stand out as "foregrounded" from the background of randomly constructed, non-deviant everyday language.

Leech proposes that the deviance may be irregular or regular. Irregular deviance causes poetic language to be foregrounded by the fact that a feature of the language is unusual and unexpected. It may bend or even break the rules of the language in its deviance. The deviance may be in the form of the language or its meaning. Regular deviance creates poetic impact by using certain features of the language with an unusual and unexpected regularity. Here I will consider the foregrounding of certain phonological features in Dot´s poems that may be created as a result of obtrusive irregular and regular deviance.

I have based my analysis on two poems performed by Dot, herself. I am grateful to Bryn Brookes of the BBC´s "See Hear!" programme for permission to use their recordings of her performances. Readers wishing to see Dot´s performances of these poems will find them most easily on the video tape prepared by CACDP, detailed in the reference list.

The first poem, "Trio", is made of three sections: "Morning", "Afternoon" and "Evening". Essentially, in this poem, the signer walks in the garden in the morning. The wind and rain cease and there is stillness. She sees a tree reflected in the calm waters of a pool. In the afternoon she eats and relaxes with her dog and a bird, and all three of them then doze peacefully. In the evening the sun sets and she is frightened by the darkness that envelopes her.

The second poem is "The Staircase - an Allegory". Characters walking together in a forest come upon a huge staircase with lights at the top. They are afraid to climb it in case they meet great dangers. However, one person is brave enough to start climbing and helps the others to follow. When they reach the top, they find that their reward for the climb is the achievement of a qualification certificate. This poem was composed in honour of the first graduates of the BSL sign language teacher training course at Durham University.

Obtrusive Irregular deviance

There are many ways that a poem may show irregular deviance. It may deviate in meaning when the poet creates metaphors. Deviance may also be syntactic or at the level of lexical choice. However, phonological deviance is the focus here. I will remark upon some of the poetic neologisms in Dot´s poems and also on her unusual use of space, movement and non-manual features.

Poetic neologism

Both "Trio" and "The Staircase..." use many productive signs. Sign languages create neologisms far more frequently than spoken European languages and the productive use of signing is not deviant per se. However, what is significant here is the specific phonological deviance that is employed to create these neologisms. The poem "Trio" contains several creative new signs, each produced by "bending" phonological rules of BSL. The signs glossed as TWIN-TREES, THREE-OF-US-DOZE and BAT/DARKNESS-COVER-FACE are all neologisms and all show specific examples of phonological deviance.

The highly pictorial TWIN-TREES refers to the reflection of a tree in a still pool. It deviates from ordinary BSL phonology by having the two articulating hands in contact at the elbows. This contact point is not seen in BSL. The sign THREE-OF-US-DOZE occurs when the poet, her dog and a bird have all eaten and then all take an afternoon nap. It uses three signs simultaneously. Simultaneous articulation of two separate lexical items is not deviant in BSL. However, three simultaneous separate pieces of information is obtrusively deviant and foregrounds the aesthetic language. The powerful, frightening image of DARKNESS/BAT-COVER-FACE is created because of the similarities between the BSL signs BAT and DARKNESS. Both use both `5´ hands crossed. In BAT the hands are linked at the thumbs, and in DARKNESS they are not linked. In this neologism the two `5´ hands, joined at the thumbs, cover the face entirely. While the face is a major location for the articulation of signs in BSL, there are no signs that cover the face entirely, so this sign also bends the phonological rules.

In each of these three examples, the phonological deviance from the permitted norms of the language creates extra poetic significance. I will consider the effect of deviation on significance in more detail below.

Deviant use of non-manual features - Gaze

There are many non-manual phonological deviations in sign poetry. Mouth patterns can be used with obtrusive irregularity, for example. The establishing function of mouth patterns derived from spoken English is well recognised in BSL. A poem that does not use these "establishing" mouth patterns deviates phonologically from non-poetic language. Poems that use spoken components that do not correspond to the signs used are also deviant. This obtrusively irregular use of the mouth is not apparent in these poems, however.

Gaze is another aspect of BSL that can be a part of the phonology that might form a deviant feature of poetry. The gaze in "Trio" does, at times, deviate from that of normal language. Normally, we would expect a signer to maintain eye contact with the audience except where there are specific reasons to look at the hands. Eye contact may be broken with the audience if the signer has taken on the role of another character and wishes to hsow where the character looked. Eye gaze is also used to track the location and movement of the hands where the hands serve to represent the location or movement of a referent. However, Ormsby (1995) has observed that one deviant use of gaze is to focus on the hands in order to draw attention to the form of the newly created sign. In the sign TWIN-TREES, Dot looks down at the sign she has made, then up at the audience, before looking down at the sign again and finally back up at the audience. This gaze is focused not on the referent location but, deviantly, on the sign itself.

In another example of similarly deviant use of gaze, the eyes in the non-specified ambiguous sign that is a combination of DARKNESS and BAT stare directly at the ambiguous sign. In fact, Dot even moves the hands back a little, as if to get a clearer look at the strange sign in order to make sense of it.

Deviant use of space and movement

I have already remarked on the deviant use of signing space in the sign BAT/DARKNESS-COVER-FACE. However, the movement and placement of other signs within the poet´s signing space also deviate from that of ordinary signing. Importantly here, the signs are selected and placed so that there is a smooth movement of signs across space. In "Evening" there is the phrase SUN (left) LIKE(centre) FLOWER(left to right) SUN-SETS (right). Here the sign FLOWER carries signs from left to right in the signing space. In "Morning" the signs STOP and STILLNESS move across from the left of the signing space, bringing the action to the centre of signing space.

In "The Staircase..." several signs are made outside the signing space. In this poem, as the characters in the poem wander through a dark forest they come against an enormous staircase. The top of the staircase is barely visible to the characters. This is signed by placing the top of the stairs - and the glimmering lights at the top - well outside the upper limit of the signing space. The poet needs to stretch to make the signs. This deviant use of space serves to add extra significance to the non-deviant idea of a tall staircase, in order to emphasise the size and impassable nature of this staircase.

While symmetry in sign languages is a noticable feature, everyday signing uses a combination of one-handed and two-handed signs. There is frequently a preferred area of signing space that is to one side of the signer. To use both left and right hand sides of the signing space with equal dominance is deviant. In "Afternoon" (in "Trio"), the poem uses one side to refer to the activities of the poet´s dog and the other side to refer to the activities of the bird. The central part of signing space is maintained to refer to the activities of the poet. In "The Staircase..." one of the characters is brave enough to climb up onto the first stair and, finding it safe, he helps everyone else up on to the step. The signs here are carefully articulated to balance the left and right sides of signing space. They also move systematically up through the space to mirror the stair by stair ascent. The sign that can be glossed as SATISFACTORILY-COMPLETE is two-handed and is used repeatedly during this section to link the balanced signs on each hand. It is articulated steadily higher in the signing space, as the characters reach higher steps.

Obtrusively regular phonological deviance

For a phonological feature to show obtrusively regular deviance it needs to follow a clear, non-random pattern of occurrence. The most obvious pattern is repetition. The same phonological feature can occur non-randomly and with a higher frequency than would be expected in normal signing. Alternatively, the features could occur in an ordered sequence, building up to a climax of some sort.


At the level of the handshape, the stanza "Morning" in "Trio" provides examples of repeated phonological features. The stanza contains 18 signs of which ten use either a `B´ or a `5´ handshape. The final sign TWIN-TREES uses two hands, each of a `5´ handshape. The stanza "Afternoon" also uses 18 signs, of which only three use a `5´ or a `B´ handshape, but `B^´ and `G^´ occur in ten signs, and `V´ and `H´ make up two more. The `B^´ and `G^´ occur in the final sign THREE-OF-US-DOZE.

The same extent of repetition of a specific handshape is less evident in the stanza "Evening". However, in another example of regular deviance it uses the marked handshape `V"´ twice. This handshape occurs in the sign EVENING at the start of the stanza, and in the echoing chime BLIND towards the end. The sign DEAF in the same stanza uses the `H´ handshape, providing a weak rhyme for the `V´, as well. Although these are only three signs, the unusually high occurrence of a marked handshape is notable and effective.

In "The Staircase..." there is another pattern of regular handshape deviance. Not only is there a repetition of certain handshapes, but they also follow a pattern. At the start of the poem, the number of fingers used in the signs steadily increases from one to five. Throughout the first half of the poem there is also a general pattern of steadily closing handshapes. Open hands (`5´ handshape) in LIGHTS-GLIMMERING are followed by `4´ handshapes as two sets of four people are represented. Two fingers are then used in the sign LOOK-UP, followed by one finger in the sign WHO. Three possible dangers might be at the top of the stairs: a lion, a swamp or a fierce giant. Reference to the lion repeatedly uses a "claw" `5´ handshape, reference to the swamp uses `B´ and `5´ handshapes, and the scenario considering the giant uses a clenched fist `A´.


The same types of regularly deviation can be seen in location. Repetition caused by unusual maintenance of a given location is seen in "Trio". In "Afternoon", as mentioned previously, one side is used to refer to the dog and the other to refer to the bird. Less specifically, but creating a pattern of repeated types of location, signs may be articulated either on, near or further away from the body. "Morning" has only two signs (MORNING and SEE) that contact the body, and twelve more are some way distant from the signer. "Evening" has six signs that touch the body, two more that are articulated very close to the face, and two more that move towards the body.

We can also see the use of successive locations that create a pattern. In "The Staircase..." signs are moved successively further from the signer towards the front edge of the signing space. Later, they are moved successively higher to the top edge of the signing space.


The effect of repetitive movement is also seen, both in the speed of movement and in the direction. In "Trio", as the rain and the wind both die down in "Morning" the movements and speed of movement in the signs in the two phrases are paralleled. In "Afternoon" the movement of the signs describing the eating by poet, dog and bird is repeated. Each one "eats" quickly and then slows. There is then an upward and backward movement (of the body for the poet, and of the hand for the dog and bird) before a hold.

In "The Staircase..." there are repeated movements that sweep up and down through signing space. A similar upward movement is made both early on when describing the sword movement of the putative fierce giant and later when describing the raising of the certificate award. The extra salience of this repeated movement is reinforced by the use of similar handshapes for holding both the sword and the certificate.

Non-manual features

For non-manual features to be deviantly regular, they need to follow a clear, non-random pattern. The mouth movements in the eating described during "Afternoon" do follow a pattern. When the poet eats we see the looser, larger mouth pattern of a person eating. It is then followed by a tighter, smaller mouth pattern to reflect the dog eating. Lastly there is the tightest, sharpest and smallest mouth pattern to reflect the bird´s pecking. Each of these different mouth patterns is repeated 12 times before the next meal-time companion is introduced.

Body movements in "The Staircase..." also show regular deviance. Swaying movements from left to right occur repeatedly. When the brave character sets off up the staircase, individual large shoulder movements repeatedly to the left and right lead the other characters progressively further and further up the staircase.

Significance of obtrusively deviant phonology in poetry

At one level, the obtrusively deviant phonology seen in BSL poetry is a pleasant aesthetic device. Certain signs or patterns created are genuinely pleasurable. When one mentions the poem "Trio", a frequent reaction is "Oh, TWIN-TREES!".

At another level, the deviations serve to provide extra significance in a symbolic way. There is frequently symbolism in the deviant use of handshape, movement and location of the signs in these poems. The `5´ and `B´ handshapes of open hands dominate the first stanza of "Morning", contrasting with the `H´, `V"´ and closing `B´ to `B^´ that are so noticeable in "Evening". The open hands of "Morning" correlate with a sense of openness, freshness and excitement that might be associated with both mornings and youth. The closed hands of "Evening" correlate with more tense, inward-looking, fearful feelings associated with evening time and old age.

The patterns of opening and closed handshapes in "The Staircase" also reflect conflicting feelings of fear and desires to reach out and grasp opportunities.

The open and closed handshapes in "Trio" work together with location of signs. In "Morning" the signs are located almost entirely off the body and far from the signer, but in "Evening" they are located more on the body, especially the face. They serve further to symbolise the contrast of reaching out in youth and drawing in in old age.

The movement of the signs is also symbolic. The signs in "Morning" frequently move outwards and away from the signer, but the signs in "Evening" move inwards towards the signer. The overall result of signs located off, or moving away from, the body in "Morning" and of being located on, or moving towards, the body in "Evening" further reinforces the powerful image of relaxed open happiness in morning and youth, and a tense closed fear in evening and old age.

In "The Staircase..." the upward and downward movements are highly symbolic in a poem concerned with deaf people overcoming fear and lack of confidence to achieve a goal that is apparently out of reach. The upward and downward movements echo vacillating feelings of confidence and helplessness.

Regular phonological deviance can also serve to build up to a climax in a poem or in a stanza. The three sets of mouth patterns used when the three characters in "Trio" are eating work with other factors to create the climax in the sign THREE-OF-US-DOZE.

The features outlined here show clearly that a linguistic analysis of the phonological features of BSL poetry is worthwhile. Much of what has been described here could be further repeated in study of obtrusive deviance at higher levels, such as the syntactic level. However, the analysis reported here reveals the complexity of Dot Miles´ poems and demonstrates the ways in which poetic effect and extra poetic significance can be achieved through phonological deviance.


Klima E & Bellugi U (1979) The Signs of Language. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.

Leech G (1969) A linguistic guide to English poetry. London; Longman.

Ormsby A (1995) Poetic Cohesion in American Sign Language: Valli´s "snowflake" and Coleridge´s "Frost at Midnight". Sign Language Studies, 88, 227-244

Miles D (1998) Bright Memory Doncaster: British Deaf History Society.

Miller C (1994) Simultaneous constructions and complex signs in Quebec Sign Language. In I Ahlgren, B Bergman and M Brennan (eds) Perspectives on Sign Language usage. Durham; ISLA

Sutton-Spence R & Woll B (1999) The linguistics of BSL; an introduction. Cambridge University Press.
(Accompanying video of the same name produced by Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People)

Posted: 14.01.2000

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